WASHINGTON – Moved by the Assad regime’s rapid advance, the Obama administration could decide this week to approve lethal aid for the beleaguered Syrian rebels and will weigh the merits of a less likely move to send in U.S. airpower to enforce a no-fly zone over the civil war-wracked nation, officials said Sunday.
White House meetings are planned over the coming days, as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces seem poised for an attack on the key city of Homs, which could cut off Syria’s armed opposition from the south of the country. As many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria, officials believe, helping the regime press on with its campaign after capturing the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.
Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face irreversible losses without greater support, and the warnings are prompting the United States to consider drastic action.
Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip today to Israel and three other Middle East countries to participate in White House discussions, said officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
While nothing has been concretely decided, U.S. officials said President Barack Obama was leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units. The U.S. has spoken of possibly arming the opposition in recent months but has been hesitant because it doesn’t want al-Qaida-linked extremists fighting alongside the anti-Assad militias to end up with the weapons.
Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require U.S. military boots on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime’s jets, gunships and other aerial assets are now being more seriously debated, the officials said, while cautioning that a no-fly zone or any other action involving U.S. military deployments in Syria was far less likely right now.
The president also has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a “red line” for more forceful U.S. action. American allies including France and Britain have said they’ve determined with near certitude that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks, but the administration is still studying the evidence. The U.S. officials said responses that will be mulled over in this week’s meetings concern the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, independent of final confirmation of possible chemical weapons use.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Obama’s advisers were considering all options to hasten a transition in Syria.